Saturday, May 28, 2011

Before the Fact by Francis Iles (1992 )


If Before the Fact is remembered other than by enthusiasts of the “alternate” murder mysteries that were relatively popular in England in the 1930s it is as the inspiration of Hitchcock’s Suspicion.

BTF was published in 1932 and for the reader who knows only the England of Marsh, Allingham and Christie it may come as a shock to find a story which deals so openly, if with a somewhat oblique form of openness, with matters of sexuality. The POV character, Lina, is clearly frigid during the first weeks of her marriage before finding pleasure in sex. Her husband, Johnnie, describes her then as having been like a wet fish in bed. We learn that, if Lina had allowed, Johnnie would have experimented unspecified sexual ‘abnormalities.’ Lina, during a time when she is estranged from her husband, frankly considers the possibility of not just taking a lover but of living openly with him.

The ‘twist’ of the book is that the ‘murderee’ as she comes to think of herself, is aware ‘ Before the Fact’ that her husband intends to murder her. Indeed she knowingly takes the poisoned drink from her husband only after she is sure that he will ‘get away’ with murdering her.

My lack of patience with the book is that after one gets over its novelty one realizes that it is a comparatively well written exercise in making the victim to complicit in her victimization that one ceases to blame her victimizer for his actions. Indeed one finishes the book blaming neither the murderer or the person who stood by watching his actions. The Lina whose mind the reader sees into is suffering from masochism so great that she talks herself into seeing her husband, a man of ruthless egotism who has robbed and murdered his way through life, as a child for whom she is responsible. How many women who end up in battered women’s shelters have bought into this idea that somehow it is their fault that they were not able to reign in the weaknesses of the man in their lives? Though Iles works hard to make Johnnie an attractive cad to this reader he is merely a man who preyed on other people. The author may have written the book to explore why people stay in such oppressive relationships but on rereading it seems more like a paean to wifely martyrdom. Rather than seeing Lina as a martyr or a woman who loved not wisely but too well this reader saw her as a woman who had as weak a moral compass as her husband. This reader ended the book feeling more sorry for the other people that Johnnie will murder after he has run through every last cent of his dead wife’s money than she did for Lina.

There was, at this time in England, an amazing amount of affection for the aristocratic cad. Had Johnnie been from the working class one cannot doubt that he would have been thrown into prison and any of Lina’s set who read about his exploits would have seen him as nothing but a common thief and murderer. It is this same affection one sees in Marsh’s A Surfeit of Lampreys wherein the reader is invited to find the fact that the titular family lives by not paying the money they owe to tradespeople and servants charming. Looking back over almost eighty years one sees the enormous degree of entitlement still enjoyed by members of the gentry and aristocracy at that time and one wonders if anything short of the intervention of a World War could have prevented serious class violence from erupting in England.

Rating: 3 stars

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